Being an American of Greek descent, and being a genuine and unrepentant lover of beauty, I, Nikitas, always look to the Ancient Hellenes for the roots of modern beauty.
It could be said that the Greeks “discovered” our modern concept of beauty. But that isn’t quite right. Actually they coaxed it out of its hidden state and began to create it with their own hands. Because beauty always exists. It is embedded in the cosmos and in nature. And the Greeks simply caused beauty to reveal itself by repetitively and incessantly probing deeper into visual form with their vase paintings, art and architecture.
This particular column concerns an area that is not much discussed in our consideration of Greek beauty – jewelry – in particular earrings.
We have many extant examples of Greek jewelry, some of it quite nice. And since jewelry was generally metal or stone, it survived. Often it was found buried with bodies of the dead.
Yet you may think: “What could the Greeks have done with earrings that hasn’t been done just as well or better throughout the ages? And how can earrings be considered anything but decoration for a vain woman’s earlobes?”
Which means that you have never seen the Greek triumph in earrings. So take a gander at these earrings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City which are truly remarkable manifestations of scrupulous craftsmanship:
Have you ever seen such work before in your life?
And to think that they are hardly known to the world. They have never been discussed in the same breath as, say, a play by Euripides or a sculpture by Kephisodotos.
Surely it was the decorative nature of jewelry that relegated it to a lower status. Nonetheless these earrings are a striking achievement as if to say that the Greeks could make anything… anything! …. that tested the limits of man’s creative force. They are surely the finest earrings ever made.
And we can assume that the maker made more, maybe dozens. The Met has one other pair like this.
And guess how big they are?
You might imagine that they are not real earrings, that they must be 12 inches tall to accommodate all the detail. That they could never be any smaller, no sir.
But friends, they are only about 2.5 inches tall, or 7 centimeters, and just the right proportion for a woman of the times. Because to the Greeks beauty was revealed in proper proportion and nothing was ever done for exaggeration or excessive show.
Look at that detail… This photo represents an area only about one inch tall:
And they are pure gold. How were such earrings made? How tiny were the tools? It does not seem possible, does it, to make chains so small?
Yes, impossible, like so much of the Greek oeuvre. Yet there they are. Amazing little treasures aren’t they?
The jeweler must have been one of the most skilled gold workers in the whole of the ancient world. In all of history, in fact. Yet his name is not even known. Perhaps because these are “merely” earrings.
Here is how the earrings were described when they were included in an exhibit called Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism at the (Aristotle) Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Avenue in New York City (onassisusa.org):
‘Disc Earrings with Boat-Shaped Pendant, Late 4th-early 3rd century B.C., Gold, Height 0.065m, Said to be from Western Asia Minor’
(Note: Asia Minor is today Turkey. And in its day Western Asia Minor, on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea, was the home to some of the Ancient Greek world’s most important and wealthy cities including Ephesus and Miletus. ‘Late 4th-early 3rd century B.C.’ means around 300 BC. Alexander the Great lived 356 BC – 323 BC)
Says the Onassis catalogue:
‘Each disc is decorated with wire and granulation that radiate from a central rosette with motifs that include palmettes and quatrefoils. Attached to the disc is a boat-shaped element with a profusion of palmettes and spirals filling the open space. Perched at center on top of the boat is a miniature Nike driving a two-horse chariot. The bottom is edged with rosettes and tiny busts of female figures. Longer and shorter chains descending from the edging end in small plain seeds and larger ribbed seeds.’
Wow. Kaboom. Obviously a computer picture can never do justice. But they give you an idea of the glory of these works.
Imagine that… ‘a miniature Nike driving a two-horse chariot’. Indeed that is in the center of the piece!
Imagine the woman wearing those earrings? She was surely no average dame.
Today we think of a woman wearing some barbarian modern jewelry as having high taste. Bah. Imagine if the Metropolitan Museum lent out these earrings for an evening on the town. They would have to be accompanied by an armed guard.
Indeed the wearer would be the talk of the city. Because these earrings come from another world entirely, one long gone that seems as if it only existed in myth. And perhaps it did. Perhaps this is all a dream… These earrings make that appear likely, as if made by super-humans and dropped to the earth.
Just imagine if the Ancient Greek world were alive today and that we were free to collect thousands of art works and painted vases and pieces of jewelry that have been lost to time.
Our society would seem awfully small, would it not, as it already does in comparison to the Greek world despite the fact that it was at most 2 million souls all over its diaspora surrounding the Mediterranean Sea?
But we have what we have. And we must consider ourselves lucky to have it.